What happens in Greece will not stay there. Photo: Getty Images
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What happens in Greece will not stay there. The Prime Minister must act

Rachel Reeves surveys the scene ahead of the UK's budget and explains why she's backing Andy Burnham for Labour leader.

In the aftermath of the Greek referendum, the threat of instability in the Eurozone reminds us that Britain cannot insulate itself from global economic forces. So we need this week’s Budget to help build a more resilient economy – securing our public finances, productivity and competitiveness.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown rightly kept us out of the single currency that was supposed to deliver stability - but is currently creating the opposite. Yet we would be naïve to think that disruption on our doorstep will not have consequences at home. In Europe and at the IMF the British Prime Minister and Chancellor should be arguing for a new deal for Greece, including proper restructuring of the Greek economy but also more time and greater debt write-downs. Without this, more austerity is simply going to deliver higher unemployment, lower output, and deeper deficits.

But uncertainty abroad also underscores the importance of securing our position at home.

Before the 2007 global financial crisis hit, Britain’s national debt was less than 40 per cent of GDP. Today it is more than 80 per cent. It will be the work of this, and future, parliaments to get it back to sustainable pre-crisis levels. This is not only so we can withstand external shocks, it is also essential for ending a situation where annual debt interest payments are set to exceed £50bn a year – more taxpayers’ money going to bondholders every year than we pay to the teachers in our schools or the nurses in our hospitals. We must deal with our debt precisely so we can release resources for the public services we believe in and the infrastructure our economy needs.

Labour is committed to this task. But we will need to be clearer than we were at the last election about a timetable for getting the deficit down and set a target for when we would get the national debt back to pre-crisis levels. The approach Labour committed to before the election could have seen debt still above 65 per cent in 2030. We must admit the mistakes of the past, and be clear that while spending on public services did not cause the financial crisis, the deficit that we were running when the shock hit meant we weren't as prepared as we should have been. Andy Burnham understands this, and this is exactly why I am backing him for Leader of the Labour Party. Looking forward, we should commit to run a surplus when the economy is growing at or above its historic average rate, allowing us to bring the debt down more quickly. And the Office for Budget Responsibility should be the independent arbiter of the government’s progress in this.

Getting our debt down as a share of GDP means cutting departmental spending as well as driving efficiency across all our public services. But crucially, it also means building a more productive and inclusive economy, raising earnings and reducing reliance on benefits and tax credits.

Early in the last Parliament, George Osborne promised to “rebalance the economy” with a “march of the makers”. But since then we have seen productivity stagnate, our current account deficit rise to record levels, and a fragile recovery that remains too reliant on household borrowing and which has yet to be felt in many parts of the country.

The underlying weaknesses and imbalances in our economy pose no less a risk to our future stability and prosperity than the unsustainable state of our public finances. We need a Budget that rises to both challenges.

Take social security spending, Labour supports the principle of a benefit cap to ensure our welfare system is fair, affordable and rewards hard work. But to make significant savings from social security we need a Budget to create more productive, high skilled, better paid jobs. Without this, cutting away support for low-paid workers, as this government plans, risks weakening work incentives and deepening the division and disadvantage that prevent us making the most of our country’s potential.

Now is not the time to be timid, now is the time to be bold and so on Wednesday, the Chancellor should announce an increase in the minimum wage. And with five million people paid less than living wage, there should be tax breaks for firms who will pay the living wage, better use of government procurement and a requirement on companies to report on whether they pay the living wage so consumers can vote with their purses and wallets.

And crucially, this week's budget needs to back the entrepreneurs and employers who create jobs – rewarding innovation and investment, improving access to finance, and doing what it takes to secure the research base, skilled workforce and world class infrastructure businesses need.

With a focus on economic credibility, constructive engagement with business and a bold plan for technical education and skills, Andy has shown that he gets this - and the need for Labour to lead the debate over Britain’s economic future.

That’s why I am pleased to be co-chairing Andy's Business Panel which launched last week alongside Graham Cole, chair of Augusta Westland, and Shabir Randeree, Chair of DCD group. This week the panel met for the first time to start the conversation in which we will work to engage businesses of all shapes and sizes throughout the country – so that Labour can best understand what businesses need to create the jobs and opportunities to grow our economy.

Dealing decisively with the deficit and the debt are essential to good economic management, but so is a strategy to raise the productivity of our workforce and the competitiveness of our businesses. If this week’s budget does not rise to this twin challenge, we in the Labour Party must show that we can.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.